Science

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Algae Joins Long List of Potential Alternative Energy Resources

December 11, 2008 12:01 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Researchers continue finding alternative energy sources, including algae, tree fungus and landfill methane. But will any of these options ever become market-ready?

Assessing the Future of Alternative Energy

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Researchers at the University of Kentucky believe they have found a way to help eliminate greenhouse gases and provide a new energy source, according to Jim Warren of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

They have suggested that algae can remove carbon dioxide from gases produced by coal-fired power plants and then be refined into a fuel like biodiesel or jet fuel. “The appeal is that if you have a power plant where you burn coal, and you capture the CO2 and use that to produce fuel with algae, you effectively become twice as efficient in the amount of energy achieved per ton of CO2 emitted,” Rodney Andrews, director of the university’s Center for Applied Energy Research, stated.

But the university’s idea, like many alternative energy projects before it, has some hurdles to face. It will take three or four years to build a test facility for the project, and producing algae oil currently costs between $18 and $30 a gallon; the oil must then be turned into fuel.

Money is a chief concern in developing alternative energy options. With the current economic climate, Technology Review blogger Hemant Taneja says the situation might not get better any time soon.

“I submit that the continued development of our clean energy economy is now at risk with the advent of the economic crisis,” Taneja wrote.

In Wisconsin, where “cow power”—using cow manure to create electricity—is abundant, lack of alternative energy financing is one roadblock hindering further development of the resource, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We've got lots of projects that would be ready to go if the economics in some way were improved,” Richard Pieper, president of Pieper Power, the Milwaukee parent company of Clear Horizons, explained.

Tax incentives and electricity rates are also among the problems holding Wisconsin back from turning cow power into a larger operation. “We've got a bunch of opportunities in Wisconsin,” Pieper stated. “They're planned, but there's nothing going forward. The economics of the plants aren't where they need to be moving forward.”

Opinion & Analysis: President-elect Barack Obama’s energy plans

Officials in the alternative energy industry are looking forward to Obama’s administration, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Obama has proposed dedicating more money to alternative energy research, creating a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions and requiring electric producers to use renewable power.

“We could not ask for a president who's more focused on energy independence and renewable power,” commented Lyndon Rive, president of SolarCity, a company that designs solar power systems.

The financial crisis has reduced alternative energy companies’ access to capital. Though most people expect Obama to address the country’s economic woes before tackling alternative energy, some say the two issues go hand in hand. John Woolard, chief executive officer of BrightSource Energy, told the Chronicle, “If the issues are not linked, they should be. The build-out of infrastructure and power plans puts people to work.”

Related Topic: New alternative energy possibilities

Scientists have examined multiple possibilities for alternative energy sources, and made some promising announcements during 2008.

Tree Fungus
A fungus found on trees in the Patagonian rainforest has been found to make, in certain conditions, the compounds found in diesel fuel. Gliocladium roseum can produce midlength hydrocarbons found in gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel, according to a study published in Microbiology.

“These are the first organisms that have been found that make many of the ingredients of diesel,” said Montana State University plant pathologist Gary Strobel, who led the research, to Environment News Service. “This is a major discovery.”

Landfill Methane
The phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is taking on new meaning as the world focuses on creating sources of clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In an article by the Billings Gazette, Swarupa Ganguli, who works with the EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program, said 455 landfills around the United States are now capturing the methane generated at their facilities and converting it into energy.

In Montana, officials at Billings Regional Landfill are planning to take a more unique approach to using captured methane; they want to clean the gas and send it through a natural gas pipeline to power homes and businesses. Fewer than 10 landfills participating in methane capture projects are actually cleaning their gas for this purpose.

Car Exhaust
Researchers for the German automaker BMW are trying to capitalize on the fact that cars can waste a lot of heat. They’ve fitted a thermoelectric generator to the exhaust system of a test car to see if they can collect wasted heat and use it to make electricity. By coupling two metals together and keeping them at different temperatures, the generator creates voltage.
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